Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Week

Our Christmas:
-Attending Isaac's college graduation on December 20th. He now has his undergrad in Math and Engineering and is interviewing for jobs.
-Going to the Murphy Christmas, always a large, loud crowd, but missing Grampa.
-Having all five of our kids home, and seeing that the baby is loving it. He has so many people to relate to. Anna Kate and I suspected he got bored with us, and now we're sure of it.
-Worshiping at our church's candlelight ceremony on Christmas Eve. It's probably my favorite night of the year. We drove through something resembling a snowstorm, and wondered if it was worth it to drive 45 minutes each way in such conditions. But when the candles are lit (with Malachi saying, "Hot! Hot!" the entire time) and a thousand people are softly singing "Silent Night," then yes. It's worth it.
-Hosting my parents, Nate's mom, and my sister's family here on Christmas Day. The weather was warm and the kids played outside for hours, sledding on our hill and building a snow fort. The annual tradition we most anticipate is Isaac's crocheted gift to Caleb. It's beyond description every time. Photographs do not do it justice. Also, photos could get somebody arrested. This year, Isaac decided that Caleb's trousseau was complete, and the torch was passed to Malachi. I can text a photo upon request.
-Going to my aunt and uncle's lake home for the Daggett Christmas party. Again, the weather was unseasonably warm and the kids played outside for hours. They skated on the lake and started another snow fort. During the day a few of us went on a little field trip to see my cousin Sarah's remodeled 1920's farmhouse. I love looking at houses, especially at houses like this one. Sarah's husband gutted the house, working during weekends and after his carpentry day job. They designed little sleeping alcoves in the upstairs bedrooms that are perfectly charming. The kids' bedrooms have a common area, but under the eaves, behind a wall, is just enough space for the beds. It's cozy and wonderful.

At each family gathering, we handed out the lyrics to "All Glory Be to Christ," and each group sang this new/old song with feeling. I mostly cried. I cried at the Murphy Christmas because I was reminded of Dad's legacy and how much he cared for all of us. I cried at our house because the room was filled with the people I love best in the whole world. And I cried at the Daggett gathering because the song was sung by my dear relatives, most of them gifted singers, and the music sounded just as it was meant to sound. All glory be to Christ.    

Some songs should be longer, and "Auld Land Syne" is one of those songs. Now with these lyrics, it's the right length, and it is worshipful.   

Cuddling with my toddler and reading one of his new books.      

We are in a deep chill again, so all the kids have their nose in a book. In fact, I can't always get help with the baby. Everyone is reading.    

A snowy day and a warm little guy.
A beautiful, memorable Christmas.
I hope yours was, too.
Happy New Year, and here are the new lyrics I wrote about.

All Glory Be to Christ
lyrics by Dustin Kensrue
traditional Scot folk melody

Should nothing of our efforts stand
No legacy survive
Unless the Lord does raise the house
In vain its builders strive.

To you who boast tomorrow's gain
Tell me what is your life?
A mist that vanishes at dawn
All glory be to Christ!

All glory be to Christ our King!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we'll ever sing
All glory be to Christ!

His will be done
His kingdom come
On earth as is above,
Who is himself our daily bread,
Praise him the Lord of love.

Let living water satisfy
The thirsty without price
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
All glory be to Christ!


When on the day the great I Am
The faithful and the true
The Lamb who was for sinners slain
Is making all things new.

Behold our God shall live with us
And be our steadfast light
And we shall e're his people be
All glory be to Christ!


Friday, December 20, 2013

Fish Stew (Or, How to Lose Six Pounds)

This is one of my best recipes, a soup that my husband loves above all others, because it is full of flavor and heat and fresh ingredients.

I adapted it from Sara Foster's cookbook, one of the few cookbooks I don't regret buying.
Her stew is replete with mussels, clams, and shrimp. I skip all those and just use fish.      

This cookbook was worth buying for two recipes: the fish stew, and the black-bean dip.
Yesterday I snacked on Christmas cookies and fresh rolls all afternoon. It was terrible. Thankfully I had this stew on hand, because its real, hearty depth of flavor was purely satisfying in a way that cookies are not.
(My other two tips on how to lose six pounds: stop drinking pop, and eat a blueberry-walnut-yogurt breakfast. These tips sort of worked for me. I'm sharing them because they might help you. At the least, you'll feel better. At the most, if you're a woman, you might end up pregnant. Which means you will gain 20 pounds).        

Fish Stew

2 Tb. olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
2 leeks, trimmed and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
3 ribs celery, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed (Foster's recipe calls for 6 cloves. Go for it if you love garlic)  
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes (I sometimes use a diced fresh tomato)   
8 cups broth, either fish or chicken
1 cup dry white wine (I use Three Buck Chuck, or sometimes skip the wine)     
2 teaspoons salt
1 tsp. fresh black pepper   
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tsp. red pepper flakes (less if you don't like heat)    
grated zest and juice of two oranges
2 pounds of fresh or frozen fish (we like the wild-caught cod from Costco), cut into 2-inch pieces  
2 tsp saffron threads (this is so expensive that I use far less, just a pinch)
2 Tb. finely sliced fresh basil leaves (I often use dried basil) 

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat, add onion, cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes.  

While onions are cooking, soak the leeks in a large bowl of cold water. Rinse and drain the leeks, and add them to the onions. Cook and stir for 5 minutes.

Add celery and carrots, cook and stir for 5-10 minutes

Add garlic, cook for 2 minutes

Add tomatoes, broth, wine, salt, pepper, marjoram, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes. (Foster says one hour, but I like my veggies to have some personality).  

Increase heat to medium-high, add orange zest and juice, fish, and saffron. Stir to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fish is done. This might only take about 5 minutes. Fish is done when it begins to flake.

Remove stew from heat.

To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle with basil     

This was a date meal, since we like it and our younger kids do not.
(Look at Malachi's concerned face. He's wondering what in the world he's getting for supper).


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Calm and Bright

We have a wood Nativity set on the ledge above the sink. 
Today it was flooded with bright early light.
Nate's parents gave it to us many years ago, when we had three children,
and each figure has a name written on its underside.
The baby Jesus says "Caleb."          

I love looking through this window (even when it's annoyingly in need of a washing).
On sun-drenched winter days, the living room glows warm and beautiful.   

I know that many words have already been written about Advent.
Most of them are better than anything I can write.
Yesterday morning I was up early, thinking about prayer and all the "askings" we throw at the Throne.
I besiege Heaven all the time, and I had a sudden picture of the Father, full of mercy, 
listening to the desperate and aching requests from His Beloved,
and hearing each one.

God With Us.
While we wait for the answers to all of our begging,
for healing, and restoration, for the end of loneliness,
while we long to be happy, and to have our desires met,
He is near.
He is here.

Sometimes we have to get rid of a lot of noise and clutter in order to see Him,
in order to hear Him.
Today I'm trying to be a bit more still, a bit more quiet.
(However, Malachi did not get the memo about stillness and quietness).        

There should be a rule that any hymn by Charles Wesley be sung in its entirety. 
Here is one of the best.
If today is a bad day, and life seems either too boring or too busy or a little of both,
the words to this song are true and timeless.

Listen to "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" here.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Simple Gifts #4: Small Stockings

For reasons unknown, I woke up this morning singing a childhood Sunday School song: 

"Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me.
But in Bethlehem's inn did they find no room for Thy holy nativity.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee."

What a great song!
I'm not sure I have the words right, but that's how I remember it.
(And now all of you who know this song are singing it too. 
That makes me so happy).   

Our new stockings are so little, Santa can hardly fit anything into them.
And it's better that way.
It's too much work for the big guy to fill big unwieldy stockings, in addition to bringing all those gifts for under the tree.
Last year I made these out of old linen clothing and some pillowcases.
I've always hated throwing out (or not utilizing) the beautiful trim on the edges of vintage linens.
I used lace, scalloped edging, and even raw edges for the cuffs of these stockings.

I highly recommend making Christmas simple by getting smaller stockings.
Of all the changes I made last year, this is the one that saved me the most time and money.     

Remember, I had to hang these on dining room chairs this year, because Malachi pulled down the stockings hung by the chimney with care.
This stocking cuff has the handmade lace from an antique European pillowcase.   
This was Anna Kate's tag, but the baby pulled off all the paper tags from last year.
I replaced them with number place-cards I found at the thrift store.
(probably originally from Target)  


Here is Caleb's stocking (he is Child #2). I love the scalloped edge (also from a vintage pillowcase).
Of all our kids, Caleb was most bitter about the loss of the old, cavernous stockings.
That son appreciates candy.    
A person can be 22 years old, and a responsible med school student, and still love to open a stocking.
I remember being married by the time I was 22, and quite unhappy about not getting a stocking that Christmas.            

Isaac's stocking is in front.
You can't tell, but I left the linen edge raw. It looks sort of manly, and it sure was easy to make.

Julia's stocking edge is a vintage doily.   

I'm not giving instructions or templates, but here's an idea of the shape of our stockings.
I had to make them narrow since I didn't have much fabric.
Otherwise I would have made the tops a bit wider.   


Baby Mick's stocking.
He's too little to care that it has a fair amount of lace on it (which you can't see in this pic).   

Have a wonderful weekend.
How are you simplifying the house this year?

Here's an excerpt from one of our favorite Christmas stories:

"Ma took one of Mary's clean stockings and one of Laura's, and she hung them from the mantel-shelf, on either side of the fireplace. Laura and Mary watched her over the edge of their bed covers.
'Now go to sleep,' Ma said, kissing them good night. 'Morning will come quicker if you're asleep.'

She sat down again by the fire and Laura almost went to sleep.
She woke up a little when she heard Pa say, 'You've only made it worse, Caroline.' and she thought she heard Ma say: 'No, Charles. There's the white sugar.' But perhaps she was dreaming.

Then she heard Jack growl savagely. The door-latch rattled and some one said, 'Ingalls! Ingalls!' Pa was stirring up the fire, and when he opened the door Laura saw that it was morning. The outdoors was gray.  

Laura saw the stockings limply dangling, and she scrooged her eyes shut into the pillow. She heard Pa piling wood on the fire, and she heard Mr. Edwards say he had carried his clothes on his head when he swam the creek. His teeth rattled and his voice shivered.

'It was too big a risk, Edwards,' Pa said. 'We're glad you're here, but that was too big a risk for Christmas dinner.'

'Your little ones had to have a Christmas,' Mr. Edwards replied. 'No creek could stop me, after I fetched them their gifts from Independence.'

Laura sat straight up in bed. 'Did you see Santa Claus?' she shouted.

'I sure did,' Mr. Edwards said."

From Little House on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Simple Gifts #3: Cookies

These days the baby is so busy, staying home all day is tough.
He's good in his car seat, and he's a pretty patient shopper, so it's much better to get out of the house if we can. But yesterday's temp hovered around zero, and we wouldn't have gone anywhere except that a local theater was performing during Chapel at Northwestern.They are so good, and I've wanted to see this performance for so long, that we bundled up Malachi and headed out into the deep freeze.

Remember Chapel? When I went to college, we had to sign in on clipboards, organized alphabetically by our last names. Now the students scan their ID cards.

Before we left the house, I whipped up a batch of these Toffee Bars. They are one of my Top Favorite Cookies of All Time. My mom made them in Peru, so you know the ingredients are pretty basic.

Toffee Bars

Preheat oven to 350

1 cup butter, softenened
1 cup brown sugar
vanilla to taste
1 egg yolk (if I have scrambled eggs for breakfast, I take out one yolk and save it for this)
pinch of salt
2 cups all-purpose flour  
Chocolate chips for the top 

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except for the flour.
Whip for a long time, about three to five minutes, scraping sides of bowl occasionally.
The butter and sugar will become light and fluffy, almost like frosting.

Add flour, mix just till ingredients are combined.
Dump cookie dough onto Pampered Chef stoneware Bar Pan.
If you don't have this pan, buy one.
If you use another kind of pan, they won't turn out as good. Just saying.
But if you must use a metal pan, line it with parchment paper. That should help.  

This is the only slightly tricky part.
The cookie dough is so crumbly that you can't spread it easily.
The best way to press it into the pan is to flour your hands (repeatedly if necessary),
and using mostly the heel of your hand, press the dough.
This cookie dough is so delicious that at this stage, I have to fend off my family from eating it.

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.
You want the edges to be nice and brown and crispy.

When the bars are done to your liking, sprinkle them with chocolate chips.
I like the butter crust of these cookies more than the chocolate, so I don't use too much chocolate.
(Maybe about 1/2 cup, although you may want to use more.)
Place the bars back in the oven for a few minutes until the chips melt.  

Spread the chocolate almost to the edges.
At this point, I sprinkle walnuts on one side of the bars.
This creates what I like to call a "healthy cookie."
Since the crust is so good, I leave the edges plain.
When they cool, you can cut them into diamonds.
I usually cut a diamond in the corner so I can follow the lines.  

Malachi Jude, waiting for a cookie.

The play was excellent.
It was wonderful to sit in Chapel with my daughter and baby son.
When we came home, someone had reduced the cookies by half, and eaten off all the walnuts.
Good thing they're easy to make.  

What are you baking this year? What's the one cookie you can't give up?

(If you're in the market for a good play, and you live in Minnesota, check out Theater for the Thirsty.) 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Simple Gifts #2: Space to Listen

This week we are in a deep freeze.
Outside, nothing is growing.
The weather guy said that normal snow is at a moisture ration of about nine to one,
but yesterday's snow was so fine and dry that the ratio was about 20 to one.

It's a good day to hunker down,
enjoy the sunshine that pours through our south-facing windows,
continue the battle against dirt and chaos,
and still my soul enough to listen,
both to God and to people.

It's so difficult to hold still.
To be quiet when someone is talking.
To listen with my whole heart.

I heard some advice last week about how to come alongside those who are suffering.
I wanted to add to that conversation, but there wasn't opportunity.
(I had to be still and listen).
I would have said this:
Sometimes, in a time of darkness or sorrow, certain people know just what to do.
I believe they are led by the Holy Spirit.
Different ones have different gifts, and darkness is a place where those gifts shine.

We have had friends show up at our door just to pray with us.
We didn't have to respond, which was helpful, since we couldn't.
We let them pray for us, and when they were done, they quietly left.

Two years ago, when I was twelve weeks pregnant and cherishing the mystery of an unexpected baby,
an acquaintance showed up, on a cold and snowy night,
bringing bags and boxes of toys and food (he reminded me very much of Santa Claus).
We were scraping the bottom of the barrel at the time,
and those bags of gifts, once I returned them for store credit,
meant we had presents under the tree.

But here is the gift that is the most rare,
and the hardest to ask for.
It's the gift that is needed above all others.

It's listening..

Just listening.

A few people, very few,
knew how to listen when I needed to talk.
They did not interrupt.
They did not give advice.
They did not try to cheer me up.
They let me talk until I was done, really done.

That's what I would tell my pastor,
if this was a conversation.
That in a time of suffering, or grief, or just ordinary discomfort,
be aware,
be ready to help, be willing to receive help.
All those tangible needs and provisions are always in front of us.

But what is beneath,
under the talking and the noise,
is a yearning to be heard.
Every one of us has that yearning.
And so I would say,
Be the one who has created space to listen.

This is my gift to you.
It's an Advent gift,
because it requires intentionality,
and time,
and space,
and most of all,
it requires the Presence of Jesus.

This is my prayer
on a winter day that is cold, white and icy,
in the time of year that is most dark and most busy.
"Jesus, how can I make the space
to listen with my whole heart?" 

"Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me,
hear me, that your soul may live."
(Isaiah 55:2-3a)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Simple Gifts #1

I feel kind of bad, because I'm always on a bit of a rant about music.
I don't know if it's a first-born tendency, or just the way I'm made,
but for some reason I have a terrible time letting this go.
I'm the same way about baby names (I want to tell people, "Name your baby this, not that.")
And about decorating.
I want to follow strangers around Goodwill and beg them not to buy the stuff, the worthless
and exhausting stuff, that they have piled into their carts.

Not just Goodwill, either.
Macy's and Marshall's and Target and every other store is filled with things
that simply should not be brought home.

It's better to have space, and simplicity,
than to cram the house from stem to stern.

So here's my little gift to you,
take it or leave it.

Make your Christmas simple.

That's it.

I'm learning this as I go, and it isn't easy.
For one who loves to make everything beautiful and memorable
(while not spending money),
this idea of simple is hard to follow.

It helps to have a baby who's into everything.
It helps to have a husband who puts down his foot about getting boxes from the highest shelves.

It helps, so much, to wake up singing,
"In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus."

A wonderful thing about December is that my usual rant about music abates somewhat.
Except for the occasional rendition of "Christmas Shoes,"
a song that should go away forever,
the radio is a safe and happy place these days.

Yesterday I listened to my new Emmylou cd, a birthday gift from my sister.
We played it all day long.

I hope you love it too. This track has background vocals by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and (gulp) Neil Young. I know Selah sings this song. But most of you have probably heard their version, and not Emmylou's. 
I'll link it at the end of the post. 

Malachi thinks Daddy's mandolin belongs to him.
His big hands remind me so much of his Grampa Murphy's hands.

In the weeks before I wrote this, Nate cleared tons of stuff out of our basement and garage.
I took two trips to Goodwill to unload things.
It felt great.
Then I threw away my dried hydrangeas (I recommend throwing out all dried flowers, you won't regret it).
Then I cleared off a kitchen counter. Just one.
But it was a start.

How are you keeping Christmas simple this year?
I'd love to know.

Listen to "Light of the Stable" here.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Snow Day

Thanks to our fresh snowfall yesterday, we now live inside a Christmas postcard.
I walked to the woodpile last night, hoping to pull some white pine branches for decorating the front porch.
I got so excited, walking through the fresh deep snow, that I had to run.
The yard glowed dim and blue, the pine trees bowed down heavy with their soft blanket.
I was alone for the only time all day.
It's wonderful to be alone, if only for ten minutes.

The white pine boughs were frozen solid to the earth,
so I gave up on that idea and trudged back to the house,
trying to step in my footprints, so as not to smudge the perfect surface of snow.

Today is going to be cold.
So cold that we might stay in all day.
Yesterday we went sledding with the baby.
He took off his little blue mitts and plunged his chubby hands into the snow,
again and again,
until he was crying from the cold.
Anna Kate took a few runs down the hill in her sled,
then she gave Malachi a ride.
He liked it.
I think he loved it.
But his hands were getting so chilled by then that we lay him down in his sled
and trundled him back to the house.
He cried the whole way.
He looked like a little Michelin Man,
as wide as he was tall,
with a pink nose and red cheeks,
wailing loudly from the sled.

And that was our grand outing.
I did not get any pictures, because the snow was still falling thickly.
Also, getting oneself and a baby stuffed into snowpants,
coat, hat, boots and mittens is a bit of a workout.   

The side yard, before I ruined it with footprints.         

Since we got about eight inches of snow, and our snow blower isn't working,
Nate and Anna Kate spent an hour shoveling.
When she came inside, hungry, she got herself a plate of Christmas cookies
and settled in to watch tv with the baby and me.
I could see right away that wasn't going to work for him.
He started clamoring for her cookies.
I ran to the kitchen to get some, since his sister refused to share,
and when I came back downstairs, he was just succeeding in climbing onto the couch.
She was huddled in the corner, trying to protect her snack,
and he was yammering at top volume as he finally achieved his goal.

She said sadly,
"That was the most unpeaceful cookie I've ever eaten."

Here's to quiet snow days, naps in the afternoon, and evenings filled with peace for eating Christmas cookies.

Let me know what you do on quiet (but busy) days like this.

Here's the recipe for the cookies we cannot stop eating. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Something Missing

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We did.
We went to my parents' house in Red Wing.
When we were there for Thanksgiving two years ago, I was pregnant but had not told a soul.
(Not even my husband.)
We laughed about that, since Malachi was about the size of an olive then,
and now he's a big, busy toddler. Like my dad said, he spent the whole day
scouting out the house. He loves to explore new places.

My birthday happened to fall right on Thanksgiving Day,
and I have to admit, it was fantastic to spend it with my folks.
We missed so many holidays and birthdays while they were in Peru and Dallas.
It was a warm, cozy, yummy, family sort of day.
There were nine of us
(and seven of those were Murphys),
but it felt just right.

Malachi scouts out Grampa's cheesecake.

The day after Thanksgiving, we hosted a little leftover party at our house.
(Nate's mom brought the leftovers).
Isaac has been taking swing dance all semester,
so he gave lessons.
His Gramma was a natural.
We all miss Grampa.
I choked up when Julia and Nate started singing "Country Roads,"
one of his favorite songs, on the drive to Red Wing.
And later, when Mom Murphy gave me a lovely card, it was signed from her alone.

So we had a full Thanksgiving,
but in some ways, a partial one.
Something was missing.
Someone was missing.

I know this strange feeling will pass,
but for now, it reminds me of when my grandmothers passed away.
It was hard to believe they were really gone.
They had always been there.

We had all the kids home for the long weekend.
Besides lots of swing dancing, they fit in a fair amount of homework,
some games, and good conversations.
I thought Malachi would be so easy to buy for this year.
Now I'm worried that all he wants is his own computer.
More specifically, he wants a mouse.
Not the kind that squeaks, either.  

Our Christmas house is, like our Thanksgiving, partial.
This is our little tree, and it's missing its topper.
Now all the boxes are back in the garage, on their high shelves,
and I don't think any amount of begging is going to get me that tree topper.  

Our scrawny silver entryway tree is parked
in a big planter, and held in place by driftwood.
Here it is dusted by this morning's snow.
Usually it has three huge lime green ornaments on its branches,
- yes, that's right, three! -
but not this year.
Those are missing too.

If you are missing somebody or something this year,
(and who isn't?)
may the sights
and smells
and lights
and friends
and silence
and music
and the cold
and the warmth
be received like Advent gifts,
day by day reminders
that in our longing to "be with,"
to have nothing missing at all,
we reveal our need for Jesus,
who came to be with us,
fill our longings,
and make us whole.